August 2005

Damien Weaver


Kannani and Document of Flames by Yuasa Katsuei

Kannani and Document of Flames contains two novellas written in the mid-1930s by Yuasa Katsuei, a Japanese author, about the Japanese experience of Korean occupation. Translator Mark Driscoll's introduction provides valuable context for the novellas, which were previously unavailable in English, and he concludes the book with a lengthy, wide-ranging essay that uses the novellas as the starting point for a lively, cogent examination of historical revisionism and Japan's legacy of empire, drawing from such diverse sources as school textbooks, manga, and the remarks of Ben Affleck at the Tokyo premier of the film "Pearl Harbor."

Driscoll's essays are the volume's chief virtue to a casual reader. The novellas themselves, whatever the merits of the originals, read as if translated by an academic historian, and are better approached as historical documents than as works of literature. Adjust your expectations. "Document of Flames," which contains some interesting social portraits, is a rough slog, and "Kannani" is nigh unreadable.

Ryuki and Kannani are star-crossed adolescent innocents. He's Japanese, she's Korean, and the whole fallen world conspires against their thoroughly chaste love. Much of "Kannani" is written with a grinding, Highlights-magazine quality, a creepy, affected childishness that makes the story's occasional violent incidents uglier, like a "Love is..." comic tainted by Henry Darger.

The novella's nadir arrives when a pack of teenagers surround two elementary-school kids in the street, beat them badly, and rape one with a tree branch. It's a horrible incident, and the stupid way in which it's written serves to compound the horror. The author labeling the perpetrators "bratty bullies," for example, is a descriptive inadequacy so grotesque as to render the word inadequacy itself inadequate.

There is no question "Kannani" sucks and is unpleasant to read, but the extremity of its shortcomings, especially its over-reliance on two or three adjectives, raises the question: Is Katsuei a writer of unusually stunted vocabulary, or was significant nuance lost in translation? Let us mull this representative excerpt:

"Suddenly he determined, 'Hey, we could be devoured by wild beasts.' With lightning speed, anxiety took ahold of his heart and shook him."

Some blame goes to Driscoll for the awkward "determined" and the cliché "lightning speed," but the latter also marks the second effective use of "suddenly" in two sentences, hack writing in any language.

"Document of Flames," the second novella, is in every regard an improvement. The novella begins in Japan, where beautiful Kakashama is married to a monster, a "traditional" Japanese man who humiliates and nearly murders her for failure to conceive a son. Kakashama goes to the cliffs to kill herself, but on the brink of suicide she sees ghostly islands rising from the mist far out in the ocean. It is a vision of Korea, an "undeveloped" and "up-and-coming" new world where she and her daughter can begin again, a frontier beyond the strictures of mainstream Japanese society and the pressures of her family.

We learn from the essays bracketing these novellas that Katsuei, their author, eventually embraced the Japanese government's line on Korean occupation unreservedly, which isn't shocking. Even in "Document," a progressive work for its era, the author's conception of Korea fits the propaganda; Japan justified its occupation with the language of development, the myth that the Japanese "settled" Korea, bringing industry and progress to a barbarian land.

On the other hand, Katsuei's fascination with Korea is genuine, and his outsider's eye is a good fit for the experiences of his protagonists, a Japanese mother and daughter navigating economic, national and sexual turmoil in an unfamiliar land. In spite of its similarities to "Kannani" including some duplicate metaphors, "Document" focuses on gender roles and the working world, whereas "Kannani" never gets beyond the exotic differences in Korean candy and the way children dress.

Kakashama and her daughter vacillate improbably between poverty and wealth, and their personalities and appearances likewise fluctuate to serve the author's purposes, but the impressions the reader receives of life in occupied Korea are interesting enough to outweigh the sloppy plotting. There's even humor, as when a teacher charts, for her prized female pupil, the phases of male life: "Teens, beast; twenties, madman; thirties, failure; forties, manipulator; fifties, criminal."

Both of these novellas are censored, "Document" most heavily, and mostly for political content. A few passages are bowdlerized into opacity, specifics and occurrences disappearing beneath a sandstorm of ellipses. The effect is titillating, engaging the reader's imagination, and certainly the least of the text's problems. Driscoll's concluding essay is the book's highlight, with the result that Kannani and Document of Flames is best regarded not as pair of novellas with supporting essays but as a commendable disquisition on postcolonialism, bolstered by the inclusion of newly translated source material.

Kannani and Document of Flames by Yuasa Katsuei, translated by Mark Driscoll
Duke University Press
ISBN: 0822335174
193 pages